On June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the police need a search
warrant if they want to track criminal suspects’ movements through
cellphone location data. The justices’ 5-4 ruling is considered
a win for privacy in the digital age.
The outcome of the case, Carpenter v. United States, marks a significant
change in how law enforcement can gain access to phone records. Before
the ruling, authorities can go to a phone company and obtain information
about the numbers dialed from a cellphone without providing a search warrant.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which was joined
by the court’s four liberal justices. Most recently, the court ruled
that law enforcement cannot use GPS tracking equipment to track vehicles
or search cellphones without a warrant.
The case stemmed from a string of armed robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile
stores in Michigan and Ohio in 2010 and 2011. In order to prosecute its
case against Timothy Carpenter, the government obtained cellphone records
that disclosed his approximate location over 127 days, placing him in
proximity to four of the criminal offenses.
Lower courts upheld the search of cell tower records according to the “third-party
doctrine,” used in previous Supreme Court cases to justify government
access to suspects’ bank account records and telephone numbers called
from landlines. However, the court ruled that cellphone location data
is different, considering it a
Fourth Amendment search.
“The government's position fails to contend with the seismic
shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only
Carpenter's location but also everyone else's, not for a short
period but for years and years,” Roberts wrote.
He said allowing government access to historical GPS data infringes on
Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment protections and expectation of privacy,
by providing the police with an “all-encompassing record”
of his whereabouts. Roberts added that historical GPS data offers an “even
greater privacy risk” compared to real-time GPS monitoring.
However, the chief justice said conventional surveillance techniques and
tools, including security cameras or real-time cellphone location data
monitoring, remain constitutional. Additionally, warrants are not necessary
in extreme cases involving imminent threats.
For more information about your Fourth Amendment protections,
Milwaukee criminal defense lawyer at the
Law Offices of Christopher J. Cherella today.